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Eat, Drink, Savor: A 2022 year-end review of food and drink in San Benito County

Highlights from 33 Eat, Drink, Savor articles published this year.
Mike Waller at Calera Wine Company. Photo by Robert Eliason
Mike Waller at Calera Wine Company. Photo by Robert Eliason
Eden Rift owner Christian Pillsbury and winemaker Cory Waller. Photo by Robert Eliason
Eden Rift owner Christian Pillsbury and winemaker Cory Waller. Photo by Robert Eliason
Alex DeLeon at Mad Pursuit Brewing Co. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Alex DeLeon at Mad Pursuit Brewing Co. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Sean Fitzharris pouring Chonk Beer. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Sean Fitzharris pouring Chonk Beer. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Brittani Diehl of Layde Cakes. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Brittani Diehl of Layde Cakes. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Jessica Foust of Foustman's Salami. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Jessica Foust of Foustman's Salami. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Benitolink’s Eat, Drink, Savor series began with a whirlwind of two days of wine tastings with three winemakers who rank high among the finest in the world. It was a very easy way to immediately make any casual wine drinker (like myself) feel out of their depth.

The first tasting for an article was with winemaker Mike Waller in Feb. 2021 as we sat at a picnic table with five bottles of pinot noirs lined up between us, wines sourced from the Mt. Harlan vineyards that have defined the Calera Wine Company since 1978. There was a tasting that afternoon with Christian Pillsbury, owner of Eden Rift Vineyards, who managed to make creating fine wines sound simple. The next morning was spent with Al De Rose, talking about making the wines of De Rose Winery, from the oldest vines in the state, and the wines he travels to make in Chile.

There has been a lot of eating, drinking, and savoring done for these articles—over 75 since the first one was published in May 2021.  But there has also been a lot of listening as winemakers, brewers, bakers, and makers of specialty foods all over the county convey their passion for their craft.

These are highlights from the 34 Eat, Drink, Savor articles written this last year. Some were revisiting places for updates on new vintages or brews, some were suggested by readers or found by our reporters. They represent just a few of the many great San Benito County-based food and beverage businesses.

Favorite wines made by the Big Three (Calera, Eden Rift, De Rose)

My tasting at Calera Wine Company with Mike Waller produced my favorite quote of the year.  When asked what he tasted in one of the wines, he said, “I only have about eight descriptors in my head, and I use them over and over and over.” But he followed that with a concise explanation as to what he looks for in the wines he makes, like the 2018 Mt. Harlan Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir we tasted that day. It is a phenomenal, perfect wine that deserves your attention as you sip it, with complex fruits and a gorgeous aroma.

Eden Rift’s Christian Pillsbury is one of the easiest people to interview. There is a clarity to his winemaking philosophy that makes you want to grow some grapes and give it a try yourself. But, of course, making the process sound simple does not mean it is. The estate is so known for its pinots, like the amazing 2018 Reserve Pinot Noir, that you might be tempted to overlook the white wines, which have their own elegance. The 2018 Reserve Chardonnay shows remarkable craftsmanship with swirling butterscotch, citrus, and floral notes and a memorable finish.

I did not get a chance to do a tasting this year at De Rose Winery, but I did try the Idyll Time Winery 2020 Pinot Noir that Al De Rose blended. Idyll Time is getting to be known for their Syrapinot, a pinot noir and syrah blend now in its second vintage and currently available at The Baler Bar. In an area known around the world for stand-out pinots, this one is a bit of an upstart and fits into the region well. It’s available on their website and, at that price point, is a great value.

Favorite wines not made by the Big Three

On a trip to review some wines being offered by Crave Wine Co., I was served Los Chuchaquis 2020 Bandido, a beautifully crafted blend from Stirm Wine Company made with 82% negrette grapes from Siletto Family Vineyards and 6% each of cabernet pfeffer, albarino, and zinfandel. I did a tasting with winemaker Ryan Stirm, and while I enjoyed his other wines very much, the negrette stayed in my mind the longest. One of the best wines I had all year, made with a distinctively San Benito County grape.

Guerra Winery’s Three Sisters Attitude blend is 63% petite sirah from Guerra’s own vineyard, with 28% grenache and 9% sirah grown at Leal Vineyards. It is fruitier than most of the Guerra wines with some pepper and dark cherries, and the grenache adds some playful accents. The Guerra tasting room is closed until May 7, 2023, but they take email orders and will deliver.

The best of the brews

I have had two different iterations, last year and this year, of Brewery Twenty-Five’s Fuzzy Jules. They make it using B&R Farms Blenheim apricot puree—480 pounds of puree—which produces a bright, fun, and refreshing beer. I am usually not a fan of fruit beers, but I love this beer.

Mad Pursuit has come a long way in its first year in business, constantly coming up with new beers and producing about 240 gallons a week. Their Anniversary Triple IPA was my pick for the article, a nicely balanced beer with an almost chardonnay start and a light flavor with no bitterness. But their High Octane changed my mind about dark beers, which I usually avoid. A customer favorite, it leans toward strawberries and vanilla but with a dense mouthfeel—very much worth a try.  

Grillin & Chillin Alehouse’s Quarantine Charlie packs a serious punch from its secret ingredient—wood chips used in making whiskey—which boosts the alcohol to 13%. The chips mellow and sweeten the beer out and kick up the sweetness. Mike Waller, who joined owner Chuck Frowein and me for the tasting, described it as a “perfect sipping beer” and a joy to drink, as long as you keep the high alcohol content in mind.

Some foodie gift-giving choices

I had gone to Casa de Fruta tasting room in 2021 to review their wines, choosing the 2018 Dr. Zanger Dornfelder ($18.75) as my favorite selection. This year, I returned to tour the fruit stand and candy store with managing partner Suzan Slater to try some of the products they make with local fruit and produce. If you like pomegranates, you will find them as jelly, wine, champagne, ice cream, and juice. That they carry that many versions of a single fruit might give you a hint of how exhaustive their collection of canned and jarred goodies they cover, perfect for gift baskets. In that review, I tagged the Vidalia Onion Steak Sauce as my favorite, but since then, I’ve gotten hooked on the Roasted Garlic Salsa. 

A shorter drive for locals but a smaller operation, Bertuccio’s Market carries over 150 local items as well as dried fruit and fresh fruit and produce. It is a jewel box of a store with a carefully curated selection that makes you want to try everything. The Cinnamon Pear Preserves and the Apple Butter are both worth having for guests at dinner or breakfast with the family.

As far as food items themselves, San-Juan Bautista-based Foustman’s Salami produces 14 different varieties of sausage, including my favorite, the 5 Alarm Habanero Pork Salami. I’ve tried seven of the varieties, and this one seems perfect. Just enough heat to wake you up but not enough to make you not notice the rich flavor of the pork. 

That Garlic Stuff!, a garlic-infused sauce used for cooking, dressing pasta or salads, or making garlic bread, comes in two versions, but That Garlic Stuff Spicy is a staple in my kitchen. The garlic is enhanced by sriracha, and I use it when I stir-fry veggies and potatoes in the morning to go with my scrambled eggs.

The best of the bakeries

It took Carlos Hernandez of Heavenly Bakery 10 years to come up with the perfect carrot cupcake, a chewy and nut-free version of carrot cake. There is a perfect balance of seasonings, including cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, topped with a decadent cream cheese frosting. There are a lot of great products at Heavenly, but I really love this one.

Whenever anyone mentions the San Juan Bakery, I always ask if they tried the Blueberry Doughnuts. To me, they are one of the defining treats, on par with the jalapeno cheese bread, the fruit turnovers and the french bread. They are available unglazed, where the blueberries serve as a satisfyingly deep base note or glazed, which seems to concentrate the flavor in a way that almost makes them candy. The bakery only carries these on weekends, and they can sell out fast. 

The interview with Brittani Diehl of Layde Cakes was done right after she had taken part in the 12th season of the Food Network’s “Halloween Wars.” I had seen her amazing creations on her Facebook and Instagram feeds, but I was not prepared when she presented me with her heart, an anatomically correct rendition done in cake and fondant, dripping with syrupy blood. I brought it to the monthly get-together at the Epicenter Building, where BenitoLink has an office. It was met with a mix of dismay and wonder, but nobody could deny its deliciousness. Chocolate cake with a hint of coconut, marshmallowy fondant, which was a treat in itself and a raspberry “blood” over the whole thing, this is one of the best cakes I have ever tasted.  

My favorite article of the year to write

The high point of the year for me was the chance to talk to Cory Waller as he was in the process of assessing each of the 200 barrels of wine in the Eden Rift warehouse that are waiting to be blended and bottled.  His job is akin to being presented with the pieces of 15 jigsaw puzzles mixed up and dumped on a table and having to figure out how to put them together without knowing which piece went to which puzzle or even what the puzzle is supposed to look like in the end. It is amazing how different two barrels of wine,  produced from the same crushed grapes during the same harvest from the same part of the vineyard, can be. It is an almost impossibly complex task, but he made it seem easy.

The 2022 Eat Drink Savor articles

831BakeShop

Bertuccio’s Market

Bliss Blendz

Brewery Twenty–Five

Calera Wine Company

Casa de Fruta

Paulina’s Charcuterie Boards

Crave Wine Bar

Craze Coffee Roasters

Dandy Sauce Co

Eden Rift, with Christian Pillsbury

Eden Rift, with Cory Waller

El Guapo Food Truck

Farmhouse Cafe

Foustman’s Salami

Grillin & Chillin Alehouse

Guerra WInery

Idyll Time Winery
La Michoacana Paleteria 1

La Michoacana Paleteria 2

Layde Cakes

Lighthouse Bakery

Lolla

Mad Pursuit

Mama’s Morsels 

Paicines Ranch

San Juan Bakery

Stirm Wine Co.

Steak Stop

Swank Farms

Taylor Farms 1

Taylor Farms 2

That Garlic Stuff!

Tourist Hat Coffee

 

Recommendations for future articles can be emailed to [email protected]

 

BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market, for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.

Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.